Friday, February 18, 2011

Casey’s Challenges Subway's Trademark Claim to FOOTLONG

As has been reported widespread in the media, last week, Casey's General Stores, Inc. (“Casey’s”), the owner of the convenience store chain Casey's General Store, filed a declaratory judgment action in Iowa federal district court against Doctor’s Associates, Inc. (“Subway”), the owner of the sandwich shop franchise Subway, seeking a declaration that the term “FOOTLONG” is generic when used in connection with a “footlong submarine sandwich” and thus Casey’s use of the term does not violate any trademark rights owned by Subway. See Casey's General Stores, Inc. v. Doctor's Associates Inc., Case No. 11-cv-00064 (S.D. Iowa February 11, 2011).

DuetsBlog provides a good blog post on the lawsuit filing (including a link to the complaint here). Other news coverage here, here, and here. Other blog coverage from Lawyers and Settlements and Trademarks and Brands.

Casey’s receipt of a cease and desist letter from Subway on January 31, 2011, regarding Subway’s claim over the FOOTLONG term apparently prompted Casey’s to file the action. In the complaint, Casey’s notes that in another pending lawsuit by Subway against convenience store chain Sheetz Inc. (see Doctor's Associates Inc. v. Sheetz Inc. et al, Case No. 09-cv-00088 (E.D. Va.)), the Court denied Subway’s early motion for a preliminary injunction and in doing so made the comment that the term “footlong” is “certainly generic.”

The complaint also notes that with respect to at least one of Subway’s applications for FOOTLONG (for restaurant services), the PTO has refused registration on the grounds that the mark is merely descriptive. In the PTO’s most recent Office Action (which included over 700 pages of exhibits), not only does the PTO note that the term “footlong” is commonly used, not only as an adjective to describe the size of sandwiches but also as a noun generically to refer to the sandwich itself and stating “Being potentially generic for applicant’s menu item, the mark FOOTLONG is highly descriptive for applicant’s restaurant services.” The PTO also noted numerous other restaurant menus, restaurant webpages, recipes, and articles using the term “footlong” to describe sandwiches and hot dogs that are one foot long and concluding that “Clearly, the evidence shows that the mark is and has been widely used descriptively, if not generically, in the food and restaurant industries for many years.”

Of course, as noted by DuetsBlog, the real question is how did Subway ever get its other FOOTLONG application (for sandwiches) to the publication phase? Numerous oppositions have been filed by companies including Long John Silvers, A&W, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dairy Queen, and Pizza Hut – with all but one suspended. The opposition that appears to be moving along is (not so coincidentally) the opposition filed by Sheetz. See Sheetz of Delaware, Inc. v. Doctor’s Associates, Inc., Opposition No. 91192657 (T.T.A.B.)

As for how the FOOTLONG application for "sandwiches" ever got the past the examination phase to the publication phase, not even the prosecution history provides a clear answer on that. In response to a descriptiveness refusal by the PTO, Subway merely argued “When applying the mark FOOTLONG to sandwiches it would require imagination, thought or perception to reach a conclusion as to the nature of those goods or services.” Subway added some sales figures in its Office Action response in order to make a claim for acquired distinctiveness if needed – but it never became an issue because the PTO, after dealing with the refusal discussed below, simply moved the application along to the publication phase.

Interestingly, it was not a descriptiveness refusal, but rather a likelihood of confusion refusal, that was Subway’s primary obstacle towards publication of its FOOTLONG application. In the PTO's office action, the Examining Attorney also cited the registered marks FOOTLONG EXPRESS (here and here) in support of a likelihood of confusion rejection. Subway was only able to get its application approved after winning by default cancellation actions against the marks FOOTLONG EXPRESS. See Doctor’s Associates, Inc. v. Skyline Chili, Inc., Cancellation No. 92050678 (T.T.A.B.).

But even after the cited marks had been canceled, the Examining Attorney still received a 72 page Letter of Protest on July 24, 2009 (which would have only been forwarded to the Examining Attorney if the PTO felt that the information raised important issues for the Examining Attorney to consider). While there is a notation in the file that the evidence was reviewed, the application was still forwarded for publication (and the approval itself would have certainly undergone the usual supervisory review, so the approval cannot be blamed on a single Examining Attorney). The rest is history (in the making). One suspects that the PTO, recognzing its mistake to have approved for publication the "sandwiches" application, went above and beyond in order to support its refusal of the "restaurant services" application.

Is there anybody out there that honestly believes that Subway is going to win this on any level?

Of course, this whole blog post was really just to give me an excuse to mention what I am reminded of when I hear the term “footlong” – a scene from the 80s Tom Hanks comedy “Bachelor Party” involving a male stripper who goes by the name “Nick the Dick.” If you watch this clip (sorry in advance for the 30 sec ad at the beginning) from the movie, at about the 1:30 mark, the lady asks “Is that footlong?” to which the gentleman replies “…and then some.” [A little bit of nostalgia for you Gen-Xers out there. . . in addition to being evidence that consumers recognize the term as a generic reference to the “size” of a “sandwich” (or at least a hot dog anyway).]